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Technological disasters can have tragic consequences

BY JOSHUA LEWIS | NEW YORK, NY | February 9, 2000

A company mines a salt dome in New York too extensively. One day the dome collapses along with the ground it was supporting, shifting

the foundations of homes and ruining aquifers and farmland for miles.

In Indiana, a plastics warehouse burns to the ground, releasing a toxic cloud that travels for miles.

The United States Navy uses the majority of one island in Puerto Rico as a bombing range. Residents nearby have abnormally high rates of

cancer and other health problems.

Though each of these events are much different from the disasters wrought by water, wind and fire-even gunfire, that usually elicit

responses from the faith community, they come with considerable human and environmental tolls. Their causes differ widely. Some are

intentional, others accidental, but nearly all are politically charged. They are called technological disasters, and a renewed effort is underway within Church World Service (CWS) to call attention to these problems and the need to respond to them.

Linda Petrucelli, executive for Global Sharing of Resources for the United Church of Christ, approached CWS in November 1997, with the

idea to expand the resources available for responding to technological disasters.

"Because no other denomination had been doing this, we felt it was appropriate since it was already a part of our identity, it made sense," Petrucelli said.

The resulting Resource Unit on Technological Disasters in the last two years has produced a manual for dealing with technological disasters,

created an extensive information and a Web-based resource guide and provided seed money and consultants to local interfaith

organizations grappling with technological disaster.

"It's a resource group," said Joann Hale, a member of the unit who has been involved with technological disasters since she was personally

affected by the Love Canal disaster in the late '70s. "We will help people evaluate what they have there in terms of the problem. We will help them get some expertise if that's what's needed. It's available to the churches, congregations, individuals. It's there for everyone."

In the past, CWS has provided some grants and maintained a task force on the issue, but it was "largely a 'talking group' rather than a 'doing group' simply because the funds weren't there for much field activity or even the publication of educational materials, for example, that could be widely circulated," said Bob Arnold, associate director of the CWS Emergency Response Program.

By providing support for the issue, UCC hopes to raise awareness in all denominations so technological disaster response will become an

ecumenical undertaking, Petrucelli said.

"Technological disasters are a very different kind of disaster," she said. "It's not something that you can send a blanket for or a warm meal. It requires another kind of response mechanism in people," Petrucelli said.

The resource unit's Web site defines technological disasters as ones caused by humans, which could have been prevented and which have an

adverse affect on human health.

While distinct from so-called "acts of God", technological disasters can be exacerbated or even created by natural ones. Hurricane Floyd, for example, unleashed tons of waste from flooded animal farms raising swine and fowl.

Hale talked of seeing propane tanks bobbing in floodwaters in other disasters and said that the resource unit is in the "talking stages" of

adding an environmental damage assessment along with the routine damage assessments made after a natural disaster.

Most technological disasters involve some form of environmental pollution and are basically divided into two types: acute and chronic. An example of an acute technological disaster is the nuclear reactor leak at Three Mile Island, "which is so obvious something happened, people are evacuated -- you may not know the extent of the health damage that can linger for years -- but an event has been identified.

"Most technological disasters are chronic. . . they're what we call silent or invisible. And that in itself makes the addressing of the disaster issue quite different from a natural disaster where you can see that trees have been blown down or people are without homes or there's water everywhere. But in chronic technological disaster, you just don't have the visual keys that say, 'Something has happened here.'" Pettrucelli said.

The case of Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, would likely be classified as chronic, in that damage to the island and the surrounding waters has

been gradual, but it certainly hasn't been silent.

Since the 1940s, the U.S. Navy has used a vast portion of the island as a bombing range to train its pilots for war.

"It was an island where the Navy came in and moved the people to a tiny part of it and kept the rest for target practice," said Lourdes Garcia,

a UCC administrator and native Puerto Rican now living in New York. Islanders houses are cracked from the impact of the bombs. Children

are traumatized by the explosions, Garcia said. But those aren't the only concerns.

"There are higher rates of cancer in Vieques than in all of Puerto Rico," Garcia said. She added the U.S. Navy recently disclosed that it has been using depleted uranium in some of the bombs it drops on Vieques.

Health issues are often big factors in technological disasters, and much chronic pollution is often suffered by people who lack the resources -- financial or political -- to do something about it.

The concern for technological disaster is a logical outgrowth of UCC's disaster response and justice ministries, Petrucelli said.

Closely related to technological disaster is the question of environmental justice. For example, "the curious ways in which trash and PCB burning and dumping and Superfund sites always seem to appear around communities that are economically marginalized or marginalized because of race and ethnicity," Petrucelli said.

But the issue points up how controversial the issue of technological disaster can be. Whereas there is universal support, at least in theory, for survivors of conventional disasters, people in the midst of technological disaster can find themselves quickly without allies in their own community, especially if the suspected source of the disaster is a company that provides a lot of jobs.

"There's even controversy as to whether there is a disaster or not," Arnold said. "Part of the work is helping community organizations that

indeed think there is, to get the scientific studies that are required to prove that something's awry in that community."

As with Vieques, it is a challenge to get people to call it a disaster. "And to name it, make people name it as such. Even that would be a huge

accomplishment," Petrucelli said.

She used the American Red Cross and its sense of duty to illustrate the importance of the church's role in technological disaster.

"If you're trained in CPR and somebody's there with a heart attack, you have a duty to respond. Well the church has a duty to respond to this particular kind of disaster, too."

The church's responsibility is also one of stewardship, she added. "We are stewards of creation. That includes all of life, human life, animal

life, the life of water and earth and air."

Technological disasters are a particularly 21st century kind of problem, she said.

"I think Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Here in this day and age we have guided missiles and misguided human beings.' Our technologies are

misguided because we are," she said.

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